It is impossible to know with certainty what Trump will do when it comes to national security. But just as it did with Obama and Bush, the marriage of ideology to technology allows us to make a few reasonable predictions. Like that of his far wiser predecessors, Trump’s approach to national security will join a particular ideological orientation (which provides him with a sense of what the country needs) to U.S. technological capacity (which provides him with a sense of what the country can do).
To see how this works, consider the differences between Bush and Obama in national security. Many of Obama’s critics complain that he largely continued the Bush-era national security policies. In fact, however, that is far too simplistic. Though both administrations believed the United States was “at war,” whatever that means in this day and age, their approach to transnational terrorism was quite different.
As a general matter, Bush, particularly in his first term when the neocons had the upper hand, believed in a muscular U.S. military presence overseas, epitomized by a large ground and air presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and symbolized by massive U.S. military bases in and near the theater of operations. Obama, by contrast, has favored a far less prominent military presence that is dispersed over a much wider geographic range and relies more on strategic alliances with the security forces in host countries. Thus, Obama shrunk the U.S. military footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, but increased the military and intelligence “advisory” role in places like the Horn of Africa. The Bush military dropped bombs from an airfield near the target; the Obama military launches drones from a command center in Syracuse.
In both the Bush and Obama administrations, intelligence was the coin of the realm. But the Bush years placed greater stock in human intelligence—HUMINT, in the vernacular—while the Obama era came to favor signals intelligence—SIGINT. This distinction in particular shows the union of ideology and technology. The “us-versus-them” Manicheanism of the Bush ideology, combined with a legitimate desire to gather intelligence from captured prisoners, led directly to torture, CIA black sites, and Guantanamo. But Obama, to his credit, recoiled from torture, which predisposed him as an ideological matter to favor surveillance. At the same time, advances in technology during the late Bush and early Obama years have made widespread monitoring of the virtual realm much more sophisticated, while a reduced military presence has led to few prisoners in U.S. custody. In that way, new technology combined with a different ideology to produce fewer interrogations and more eavesdropping.
Finally, the Bush Administration’s insistence that 9/11 “changed everything” led it to doubt the wisdom and efficacy of civilian prosecutions for alleged terrorists. Instead, the Bush team put its faith in a completely untested system of military commissions and indefinite detentions, which proved an utter disaster. The Obama Administration, by contrast, had no qualms about civilian courts but had an ideological objection to military commissions and detention without trial. As a result, federal prosecutions have increased, the military commission system has become a virtually irrelevant but exceedingly expensive sideshow, and detention without trial has shrunk to a small but still morally reprehensible part of the U.S. national security regime (and—full disclosure—includes my client, Abu Zubaydah).
So where might we find Trump in all this? Ideologically, there seems no question that he, like Obama and Bush, believes we are “at war.” In addition, and again like his predecessors, there is every reason to believe he thinks intelligence remains the sine qua non of national security. Yet in other respects, he tends more toward one former president than the other. Like Bush, for instance, he shares a decidedly Manichean vision of the world and lacks nuance in his thinking. In addition, his go-it-alone style is likely to lead him, like Bush, to favor a strong, unilateral executive, an impulse that will no doubt be reinforced by his questionable mandate and the reality of hyper-partisanship. Yet like Obama, he opposes the neocon vision of U.S. as nation-builder, and thinks the war in Iraq was a mistake. At the same time, these ideological dispositions will be brought to bear in a time of increasing technological improvement, which allows for ever more sophisticated deployment of surveillance, cyber, and drone warfare.
Here’s what I foresee. On the international front, and despite his campaign pledge to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, I doubt very seriously that Trump will return to the Bush practice of creating large overseas military bases. Instead, I think he will continue the Obama commitment to drones. Yet his Manicheanism may make him considerably less concerned than Obama was either about collateral damage or violations of international sovereignty. As a result, I expect he will be increasingly more likely to employ drones outside anything remotely resembling a theater of operations. Drones will become more common, more widespread, and more destructive.
Despite his tweets, I actually do not expect Guantanamo to grow in a meaningful way, although it certainly won’t close. Guantanamo was built to be the ideal interrogation chamber, and the increasing recourse to drones will mean that Trump, like Obama, is simply not likely to capture a lot of prisoners for interrogation. That also leads me to doubt whether he will restart the torture program, again despite his campaign promise to do “a helluva lot worse” than waterboarding. On that score, it is at least noteworthy that James Mattis, his incoming choice for Secretary of Defense, is opposed to the torture of the Bush years.
Domestically, even though Trump may share Bush’s antipathy for federal prosecutions, he will quickly be warned against transferring terrorism suspects to Guantanamo after their arrest in the United States, since the legal consequence would likely be to create a more robust constitutional regime for all Guantanamo prisoners. That, combined with the overwhelming success of federal terrorism prosecutions, leads me to suspect Trump is likely to continue the Obama practice of prosecuting terrorists in federal court, though once again he is apt to increase and intensify their use. In the end, I suspect the military commissions and indefinite detention regime at Guantanamo will continue, but remain more a partisan symbol than a serious national security tool.
Finally, there is the matter of surveillance. I may be naïve, but the constitutional objections to anything remotely like a Muslim registry lead me to believe this will not be pursued. In a word, he’d be a fool to do it. That, however, may not stop him.
I do think, however, that Trump will dramatically expand the surveillance state. The combination of technology and ideology simply makes this irresistible to a Trump Administration. Here, I suspect surveillance will be more pernicious than it was during the Obama or Bush years. Bush did not have the technology at his command, and Obama’s ideological commitment to equality left him uncomfortable with explicitly targeting certain populations, which led him to opt instead for mass surveillance that had at least the appearance of neutrality. Trump, by contrast, has the technology that was available to Obama without the pesky reservations about profiling. As a result, I think he is likely to be enthusiastic about targeting Muslims and Arabs, in both the virtual and real world. To put it differently, why would the Trump Administration court the constitutional and political objections to a registry if it can accomplish much the same thing through secret surveillance?
Of course, none of this may come to pass and the world in the years ahead may be unrecognizable from what I have described. History always has the last word. But my strong sense is that the years to come will in many respects be as bad as the recent post-9/11 world, except in those places where it will be even worse.